‘Cash mob’ debut brings shoppers to locally owned retailers

You may have seen a commercial or maybe even been in a shopping mall when a flash mob broke out.

Suddenly, a bunch of random people began singing or dancing.

It really wasn’t random, of course. Social media networks had been hard at work, sending Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn messages to make sure participants knew where and when to show up and what to do.

The same social media muscle now is turning some flash mobs into “cash mobs.” Instead of showing up to sing or dance, participants are being asked to come out to support a selected group of small, independent and locally owned businesses.

The invitation is to come shop. Bring cash.

What’s believed to be the first cash mob planned for the Kansas City area aims to bring shoppers to four independently owned retail businesses in the 5000 block of State Line Road at precisely 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.

“Is this nice or what?” said T Jensen, owner of Hi Hat Coffee, a tiny shop that anchors one end of a short retail block in Westwood that houses Absolute Florist, Annedore’s Fine Chocolates and the Little Gallery Frame Shop. “It’s so great that people are sticking their necks out for small businesses.”

The necks doing the sticking out belong to Burton Kelso and Kelly Ziegler, two area residents who met on Facebook and concocted the cash mob plan after reading about events in other cities.

Kelson and Ziegler surprised the owners of all four businesses on the block to let them know they were chosen for the cash mob debut.

“I don’t fully understand it,” said Sheri Weedman, owner of the chocolate shop. “But I sure like the idea of people wanting to buy local and help unique businesses succeed.”

Kelso, an information technology contractor who provides services for Annedore’s and Absolute, knew about those companies and saw how hard independent retailers work to prosper in a tough economy.

He suggested the retail block to Ziegler, an advertising professional, who last month had posted on Facebook a Wall Street Journal article about the fledgling cash mob movement nationwide.

Other than Kelso being an IT contractor for two of the businesses, there wasn’t a particular reason for them to suggest a cash mob for that block.

Believed to have begun in Buffalo, N.Y., the first publicly recorded cash mob was formed Aug. 5 when someone decided to extend the Groupon and LivingSocial concept beyond one-time pursuits of bargains.

The idea came from Chris Smith, an Oracle Corp. engineer, who used Twitter and Facebook to invite customers to converge on a Buffalo wine merchant. The retailer’s sales for that day tripled the usual total.

Within weeks, the cash mob concept spread to other cities, mostly through social media efforts on behalf of small, independent, locally owned businesses. In most cases, the events were planned by customers or fans of a business who simply wanted to help direct more traffic to a place they liked.

“We’re pretty sure this is the first in Kansas City,” Kelso said. “The goal is to get people to spend at each shop, meet new people, and have fun.”

Part of a cash mob’s youthful tradition is for interested participants to gather afterward and “celebrate at a local watering hole,” he said, naming Boozefish Wine Bar on Westport Road as the intended gathering spot after the hoped-for shopping event on the 19th.

In some cities, cash mob planners have suggested that each shopper bring a $20 bill. Kelso said $10 per shop was a more reasonable goal for a first outing here.

Even that modest goal made Jensen chuckle. The coffee shop’s average tab is about $4.50. But, if people want to try new drinks or pastries, he said he’d certainly be up for that.

Lori Owens, owner of the florist shop, said she usually has an influx of regular customers from 4 to 6 p.m. who come for her daily half-price specials.

“But I’ll have a couple of extra people on hand” on Thursday, she said. “It’ll just be merchandising what I have in my store otherwise, but what a great thing to call attention to ‘We’re here!’”

Weedman also plans to be fully staffed in case the cash mob materializes in force. “And we’ll have lots of (chocolate) samples so that even if people don’t buy, they’ll still have fun with it,” she said.

Diane Young, owner of the frame shop, said she didn’t plan to do anything different to prepare for Thursday but was happy for the exposure to her small business.

Ziegler, who owns her own small business, Ziggy Franz Advertising, said that kind of exposure is what cash mobs are designed to provide, perhaps alerting new customers to locally owned businesses.

“We’re working on our next cash mob location now,” she said. “We’ll work out the bugs, see how many people we get. We’ve already had about 10 different locations people have suggested to us for our next one.”

Kelso and Ziegler hardly expect to have a lock on local cash mob creation.

“Kansas City is a very big metro,” Ziegler said. “There’s room for others. It’d be wonderful if other people would start their own.”